Sculptor evokes haunting images of lost civilizations
Many of Ed Jaffe’s sculptures and paintings evoke images of Mysterious cultures and lost civilizations. The Mayans, Incas, Aztecs and Ancient Chinese emerge from the stone Jaffe carves into polished works of art.
Those who meet his art before they meet the man could be excused for expecting Jaffe to be a mystic cloaked in the trappings of the Yucatan or the High Andes.
Although he recharges his inspirational batteries on periodic forays “to the hills of Guatemala and Ecuador”, areas he first discovered many years ago, Jaffe is a gregarious, urbane individual who came to Main Street, Orange, Virginia, via New York City and Vermont.
Those who see his work before meeting the man might also be surprised to find that Jaffe is an organized artist who has structured his work day into a series of two hour segments and his life in two decade blocks.
Jaffe spent about two decades growing up and getting a formal education, two decades as a successful commercial photographer in New York City and two decades in Vermont making the transition from photographer to becoming a successful sculptor. Now he is several years into a stint in Orange Country.
Although he has traveled the globe on photo shoots and in the search for inspiration for his art, Jaffe is remarkably “at home” in his studio, with attached townhouse. The converted “Five and Dime” on Main Street in the town of Orange provides Jaffe with almost ideal studio space, adjoining living quarters, and a spacious area where he can display his work.
Jaffe delights in showing people his art. That they may lack the wherewithal to purchase it and the artistic background of a true collector matters little to Jaffe, as long as they like what they see.
The massive stone faces and shapes Jaffe carves from marble are not breakable. There are no “please don’t touch” signs. In fact, Jaffe takes it as a compliment when visitors are overwhelmed with the desire to place their hands on one of his works of sculpture.
Ed Jaffe developed his artist’s eye as a photographer. ” I started making money with a camera when I was 15 years old. I went on to graduate school to learn what I was doing. Then the military. I mustered out in 1954 and headed to New York with enough in my pocket to last 6 months. I ended up spending 22 years there working for top ad agencies and corporations and finally acknowledged that New York City was not fun anymore. The business had changed. A lot of magazines were cutting back. We as photographers had a choice of going into film or TV. I made one film, but hated the post production part of it so I stayed in print.”
Jaffe’s photographs appeared in major magazines in the 50’s and 60s and in catalogs for Neiman-Marcus, Gimbles and other stores. “The money was good, but I turned into a factory. I had already been sculpting for 10 or 15 years for relaxation so I decided it was time to find out if I had anything to say in that medium. I had gone to Vermont on a shoot and fell in love with the place.There I learned my trade as a sculptor and survived by taking assignments from old clients and new ones like Orvis and the gun companies.”, Jaffe said. ” Photography followed me. Then, about three years after I left New York, I was driving to Hartford, Connecticut to deliver some prints and I decided to cut all of that out of my life. Orvis was a half hour away from my farm so I did Orvis for a long time. I was in Vermont for 20 years. …but then I blew my knee and couldn’t ski anymore. I used to cross country ski all day from my door and I realized if I was out in the woods and couldn’t get back some hunter would find me the following fall. If you can’t ski you don’t put up with 6 months of winter unless you have to.”
So Jaffe set out to find a new location.
“But where? Basically I’m an Easterner and I’m a Yankee. I didn’t want to go west of the Mississippi or too far South. I arbitrarily selected this state. I got a contract on a farm in Culpeper County and another on my place in Vermont. The one in Culpeper fell through and the one in Vermont was solid. So, I had 15 tons of art and equipment to move and two months to move it.
Jaffe spotted his present location on Main Street in Orange, an old store site, and jumped on it. ” The space was right. It was empty and available. I redid it and located a facility here that most artists dream about. I did what I started out to do and now that I’ve done it I don’t have to do it anymore.”
Although the spacious building gives him all the room he needs to create and display his art, as well as what amounts to a transplanted “New York Brownstone” to live in, Jaffe eventually found himself without a ready market for his art. “In the first three years here I brought my own market with me because of the collectors that I had around the country. One flew to Pittsburgh from Seattle, then flew to Charlottesville, rented a car, drove here, bought a painting, drove to The Inn at Little Washington to spend the night and then flew out of Dulles to make a speech in Paris. However, I soon realized that I had to build a regional market.”
About his work, Jaffe says,” I have a use of space and form that has been consistent for 25 years. About 15 years ago I tried to fight it but it kept coming back Then I realized that it was my own. The use of major and minor interlocking space is there whether it is figurative or abstract. Jaffe still goes to
the mountains of Central and South America to renew himself. ” I was sculpting in exotic hard woods for many years. I went there in search of wood and found they couldn’t export it in the sizes that I wanted. But I kept going back to the mountains of Guatemala. When I go I’m like a sponge. When I get back I squeeze the sponge and see what I got out of it.”
It’s actually less casual that that. He takes photographs and fills sketchbooks on these trips. Some of those sketches later emerge as both sculpture and paintings. “The paintings are influenced by the stone,” he explains. (There is a definite three dimensional aura and texture to his paintings.)
“Sculpture should be visible in an exciting way from 360 degrees.” Jaffe said. “you can look at it from any angle. It may start out realistic at the front but when you go around it becomes abstract. I want to keep your eye in there.”
“Stone sculpture is exacting and tedious work. It is not instant art. I work at it and I work a lot.” Jaffe said. “There are times that I really don’t want to go in there,” he said, pointing to his studio from his office. ” It requires more personal discipline than working for someone else. Once you start, it feeds on itself, eight or ten hours are gone. I’ve put 12-14 hour days in there and never been tired. Carving stone is easier and cheaper than going to a shrink.”, he joked. ” I whack away in the beginning, finding the piece is very intellectual. Once you do find it you can’t ruin it. It’s committed. The noise and dirt and sweat are at the beginning and by the time you get to the polishing it becomes sensual. A piece of sculpture is like a magnet. Whenever somebody says, ‘Can I touch it?’ I say, “Absolutely, that’s what it’s all about.”
“There are times when I am not prolific. When I have finished a body of work., when it finishes itself, then I ask, ‘What’s next?’ Vermont was very good for me. I’d take my dog and walk in the woods looking at nothing and seeing everything. It was a gestation period for the next body of work. ”
Jaffe refers frequently to a body of work. “Literally, for ten years, I was fascinated with the culture of the 1500s in Central and South America. There were interruptions but it had not changed. Then I didn’t want to do it anymore. This new body of work is abstract and I spend the day asking ‘ I wonder what would happen if….?
” There is a second painting “beneath” an example of his current work, as there are in other paintings. “I had been working on a painting for over a week. One morning I came into the studio, looked at it and said. ‘Wallpaper.’ I gessoed it out and began something new.
” I always have a pretty good idea of where I’m going when I start a project but I never know where I’m going to end up.”,
Jaffe explained. His sculpture starts with a game plan, a sketch that may be reworked several times. then he may do a small model in clay and rework that several times. then it’s onto transfer paper, maybe a full-sized model, and then to stone. It is a methodical process involving a variety of disciplines, sketches, photos, “rough cutting with diamond blades”. Shop tools are used until he gets to a half inch from the sculpture that dwells within.
” I start out with cutters, move to air hammers and then work with the kind of tools that were used before these labor saving devices were invented.. Then I use files like this (holding up a big one). Then it’s down to rifflers like this ( pointing to a selection of files suitable for grooming the finger nails of a woman). When the piece is done I carve all of the bases, drill the holes and plant the rods, “Jaffe said. “The base is an integral part of the sculpture.”
How long does each one take? “The only one I ever clocked was 100 hours. I had a time sheet on it and clocked out when I went on to another piece. I have a two hour working period. By my body clock I can tell you when two hours on a given piece have gone by. When I start thinking, what’s next?, I walk away. Once I hit the stone I don’t want to think about it. That’s done between work sessions.”
“There is a point in time where you throw all the drawings away .The juices are flowing, the piece is committed and the stone takes over. That is the sweet spot.”